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Gavin Williamson on why getting pupils back to school is more important than ever

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Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary

Writing in the Sunday Times, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson explains why it's essential that schools reopen next month.

As we start the last week of August, thoughts are now turning to the start of autumn term. This year has not been easy for anyone and the pandemic has been an especially heavy weight for young shoulders to carry.

I particularly recognise the level of distress and concern the approach to providing exam results this year has caused some students. While the vast majority received A-level grades that reflected their ability and enabled them to progress, a significant minority didn’t and it was clear they couldn’t be given the grades they deserved through an appeal system. Subsequently, the decision was made to award centre assessment grades to GCSE and A-level students.

It was the right decision but it was not an easy one. I do not diminish the strength of feeling about these results. I want students and their families to know that Ofqual, the independent exams regulator, took the decision, which we agreed with, because we didn’t want any distress to continue.

I know so many young people will have felt anxious as a result of the past few months and I want to do everything I can to ease this feeling as we emerge from the summer season and begin the new school year.

Even as adults, that feeling of going back to school after the summer often stays with us. This year it’s an opportunity to feel a sense of normality again.

Before schools reopen, I think it is worth setting out what to expect.

We have been clear that a full return to school for all pupils next month is a national priority. The entire education sector has put a huge amount of work and collaboration in to ensuring the right protective measures are in place. We are doing everything we can to help schools get ready, not least with our #backtoschoolsafely campaign to reassure parents and students that schools and colleges are ready for their return.

Pupils will turn up on their first day and much will be as it always is: new pencil case, crisp new shirts and shiny, if slightly uncomfortable, new shoes — but the environment will feel a bit different, to ensure it is as low-risk as possible.

There may be one-way systems in place, hand sanitiser in some classrooms and staggered movement and lunchtimes. This may seem strange at first, but they are all measures designed to keep staff and pupils as safe as possible and reduce transmission of the virus, building on our experience of schools opening for about 1.6 million children before the summer.

It’s not just in school that changes are being made — we are asking parents and students to plan for how they can travel to school on foot or by bike, avoiding public transport where they can. The government is also funding extra school transport to further ease capacity constraints where students would ordinarily need to use public transport.

The past few months have been such an uncertain time. Uncertainty can bring trepidation and I’m sure there will be parents reading this who are worried about what September will bring.

It is therefore reassuring to see today that the chief medical officers across the UK have said that compared with adults, children may have a lower risk of catching Covid-19 and definitely have a lower rate of severe disease.

It is also reassuring to see that there is clear evidence from many studies that the majority of children and teenagers who catch Covid-19 have mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. There is also evidence that primary children are less likely to catch the virus than adults, with older children and teenagers being either less likely or no more likely to catch Covid-19 than adults.

The chief medical officers also warn about the risks of being out of school — increasing inequalities, reducing life changes and exacerbating health issues. The balance of risk is firmly in favour of return.

On this basis, I want to assure every parent, student and family that schools and colleges are ready for them and that going back to school this year is more important than ever.


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